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Frederick A. Ober

What the Fire-Raft Did at Maracaibo

After the captain of the galleon had inspected the ruins and seen that it was hopeless to expect to repair his vessel at Porto Bello, he was in great haste to sail for Maracaibo, which port, situated on a great lake protected by forts at its narrow entrance, he thought would be safe to tarry in during the time necessary to make repairs. He would be overdue at Cadiz, owing to sailing so far out of his course already; but the repairs were necessary, and perforce must be made.

He was graciousness itself after the severe reproof he had received from the senorita, and took us aboard the galleon without asking of Eli or myself any question as to our previous calling or how we came to be connected with the buccaneers. There was a coolness between him and our senorita, but no lack of politeness, and, as luck would have it (he explained to her), there was a Spanish lady on her way home from Peru whose cabin she could share, and thus avoid any scandal that might otherwise arise from going on a ship unattended. I must give the captain credit for being most thoughtfully attentive to our senorita, e'en as a father might have been to a daughter; and in the minds of Eli and myself no blame could be laid to him for refusing to jeopardize his ship, his men and his precious cargo by running into the jaws of the buccaneers. The senorita took his refusal much to heart, she had so much at stake; and, being a woman, she could not understand his reason for refusal; whereas it was plain enough for any man of sense.

"Can't blame the old capt'in a bit," said Eli to me, when we were out of earshot of them both. "Of course, the gal's all cut up 'cause he won't put about and run slap into the roust den of pirates in the Caribbean, or for that matter in the whole world. I tell you, Hump, I was awful 'fraid he or she would appeal to you or me for our 'pinion, and though it would have gone ag'inst the grain to say I agreed with the capt'in, seems to me I'd uv had to do it. Odds blood! but it's hard on her, though, to be carried away from her father and sister when she thought she had a right to demand a safe passage right to where they are. But she's got pluck, Hump, hain't she? Did you see the old Don curl up, jest like the toe of a burnt boot, when she flashed them eyes of hero at him and puckered up her dainty lips. I bet he'd have gi'n something to be out of the scrape with her approval, ruther 'n her scorn, eh, Hump?

I admitted to Eli that the captain's position was unenviable, to say the least, and also that I could not but agree that he had decided wisely in refusing her request. "Still," I added, "it makes it all the harder for us, Eli, for we are in honor bound to bring the senorita and her kin together, somehow. Just now we are sailing still farther away from Tortuga, and who knows but we may reach old Spain itself before we get through?"

"Jest what I've been thinking myself," said Eli. "But I don't care if they take us to the ends of the airth, I'm bound to get back to Tortuga and try to rescoo our friends there, if it takes years."

"Yes," I assented. "Think of poor John there all alone in the hut watching for our coming, day by day, and guarding a secret which, if it were known, would probably cost him his life."

"Oh, yes, I have thunk, and thunk, and so far I can't see no way out of the fix we're in, Hump, 'nless a miracle happens; which ain't likely. What I 'm afraid of is meeting up ag'in with the Brethring. Howsomever, s' long's there's life there's hope; and if we get killed there won't be nothing to worry about. We 've slipped cable now, that's sart'in, and are sailing with a free sheet and a flowing sea."

The quarters aboard the galleon were quite comfortable, but the men were all suspicious from the first, eyeing us askance and apparently desirous of picking a quarrel with us, on account of the fact having leaked out that we were erstwhile buccaneers. Both Eli and myself were well put to it to avoid drawing our cutlasses and having the matter out at first hands; but the thought of what we had at stake—of the senorita, who now depended wholly upon us to fulfill the promise I had made of taking her to her father, and of poor John, who full oft tugged hard at my heart-strings—these thoughts stayed our hands when oft our heads were hot.

And we were sailing into the unknown, but with a certainty of some exciting adventure. In due course we sighted the peninsula of Coro, which juts out from the Venezuelan main, and then the bight that gave entrance into the Gulph of Maracaibo. As we drew nigh to the narrowest part of the strait that gives into the gulph we saw several large ships lying at anchor, the which, after closely scanning through the glass, the captain joyfully announced to be Spanish frigates. A great shout went up as the tidings were communicated to the sailors; for the galleon's crew had grave doubts as to the wisdom of sailing so close to the main at this time, knowing well that the buccaneer's fleet was scouring the sea in this direction.

Their troubles seemed now to be o'er; but in Booth they had only begun; while our own were dreadfully augmented—as will soon appear in this narrative. We approached the fleet with colors flying and every token of our joy made manifest; but as we drew near we could not but note that all the frigates were drawn up in line of battle array, with ports open, guns thrust out and nettings spread along the bulwarks, as if to repel boarders.

As we came within speaking distance a voice hailed us through a trumpet from the foremost frigate, ordering us to sail to the rear of the line, run out what guns we had and take position to make a desperate defence. When our luckless captain asked the trouble, he was saluted with a good round Spanish oath, and told to sail up the lake if he wished to be set upon by bucaniers. The dread word was passed from lip to lip, and soon reached the group nearest Eli and myself. We were standing a little aloof, as usual, but the word was wafted to us, and caused Eli to prick up his ears instanter. He dashed to the side and swung himself into the rigging, whence he could get a view ahead, hopping up the ratlines on one foot with wonderful alacrity. Shading his eyes with his hands, he took a long look up the lake, then called down for me to join him. When I reached his side he pointed ahead, and asked me if I recognized any familiar craft in a bunch of vessels that I could see gathered less than two miles away.

The question need not have been asked, as he well knew, for the fleet gathered there was none other than the one we had set sail in from Tortuga for Porto Bello, and which we had hoped never to see again. There it was, the admiral's frigate in the midst, with the black flag, death's head and cross-bones and all that proclaimed the craft to be the pirate's own. I felt my heart stand still, it seemed to me then, and looked at Eli anxiously for his opinion.

"Well," he said, in answer to my gaze, "they're all there: 'Big Bess,' the 'Holy Carrack,' 'Santa Maria' and all the rest, sure 's musquets can shoot better 'n arquebuses and musketoons. They ain't licked us yet, to be sure, but there ain't a bit of doubt but they will. The Spaniards think they've got 'em penned up and ready to s'render, but they don't know Bully Morgan and Mounseer Mansvelt so well as we do, Hump. Here the Spanish admiral's got his ships stretched right across the channel, thinking prob'ly that he can stop the Brethring from coming out. Why, sakes alive, Hump, when they make up their minds to come out they won't ask permission of nobody, but they'll jest come; see if they don't!

"But how can they, Eli? They can't break through this line of battleships, every one of which carries heavier guns than any of the buccaneers' fleet."

"Don't know, Hump, my son, but they will when they git good and ready, my word for it. I have an idee as to how they'll do it—leastwise, as to how I'd do it—but it mayn't be their'n."

In the meanwhile our ship had worn about and taken her place in the line, nearest shore from mid-channel. All our guns were out and matches lighted, pikes and cutlasses had been passed around, and nettings stretched along the bulwarks, after the manner of the men-of-war. Our galleon had a tremendously high poop, like a castle, and stood very well up from the water, so that we had little to fear from boarders, at least first along in the fight.

A great hubbub from the ships caused us to look more closely up the lake, and there we saw a ship—one of the biggest—detached from the buccaneer fleet and slowly drifting toward us. The men-of-war, lying broadside to the approaching ship, trained their guns upon her, and it looked as though she were drifting straight to destruction, for our ships were chained together, and she could by no means get through, perchance she might survive their fire. She approached within a mile, within half a mile, and nearer yet, until we could see the men in her rigging and upon her deck. The great guns, and e'en the demi-culverins, were pouring in their shots by now, and yet on came the doomed craft, drifting straight toward the flag-ship of the Spanish admiral. Some of the cannon were firing hot shot, and when at last flames were seen to burst out amidship a mighty shout went up from the Spanish ships.

"Oh, the fools," yelled Eli. "Oh, these Spanish fools! That fire ain't caused by their hot shot, Hump. She's a fire-ship!"

It was even so. A fire-ship surely she was, and by this time the flames had burst out all over her. The wily buccaneers had filled her with combustibles; had placed wooden men in her rigging and on her decks to draw the Spaniards' fire, while a small crew of reckless spirits was concealed below biding what might betide, be it death or be it victory. The most desperate of the pirates was dexterously handling the helm, for he headed the craft directly at the Spanish flag ship, and betime the admiral saw his peril it was too late. He trained all his broadside guns upon her in a vain attempt to sink her before they came together; he then tried to claw off out of her course; but this he could not do, for he was chained, or cabled, fore and aft to the vessel in front and in the rear of him. The instant the fire-ship struck the admiral's frigate she was fastened to it by grappling-irons—the work of men who until that moment had been invisible—and the flames leaped like lightning from the rigging of one ship to the other.

Wrapped as was the fire-ship in vast sheets of flame, it was but a short time before the admiral's gallant frigate was also enveloped, and before our captain could detach the galleon from the perilous chain the buccaneers were upon us.

They had followed hard after, like wolves in the wake of a forest fire, in order to strike before the Spaniards could recover from the confusion into which the advent of the fire-ship had cast them. Through the flame and the smoke they sent cannon shot fast and most furious, and, what was yet worse, by far and more destructive, hollow shot or shells filled with explosives, fired from cast-iron guns, which some call mortars or howitzers, and which the buccaneers captured from French ships, thus having them in use even before England knew of them. These fiery messengers of death seemed endowed with the malific spirit of the pirates themselves, and sought us out as if alive and veritable demons of the invisible world. The canopy of smoke that hung over the lake obscured all except objects immediately near us, and prevented us from discerning the pirate ships; but, as we presented a broader and more compact body, the exact position of which was known to the attacking ships, we could not escape. In vain our captain tried to escape by hoisting sail and bearing out toward the sea. In its crippled condition the galleon could not make headway, and we only drifted back upon the enemy. We were, in sooth, the first to surrender after the admiral's frigate, for over our sides came pouring a flood of pirates, pistoled and cutlassed, after the manner of them when in search of prey.

The Spanish captain had asked us if we would fight them, and we responded by baring our arms, loosening our belts with our pistols and cutlasses therein, and priming our musquets. This was before the advent of the boarders, and we had in return asked of him but one favor—that we might stand at the gangway to the ladies' cabin (which was far up in the castle and would probably be the last portion of the ship attacked, unless cut through by cannon-shot) and be furnished with all the fire-arms he could spare from his own men. He smiled sadly at this request, saying that he feared there would be but too many arms to spare, his men not seeming to have stomach for a fight. But he willingly granted our request, and thus it was that when the crisis came—when the deluge of boarders poured over the bulwarks—brave old Eli stood by my side, and both of us were on guard at the door of the cabin. And our senorita stood also with us, smiling into our eyes and filling our hearts with a courage invincible.